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Steelheart Chapter Ten

No, skipping from the Prologue to Chapter Ten is not an error. So far, only the Prologue and Chapters Ten and Eleven have been revealed. This chapter was originally posted on MTV Geek on July 13th, 2013.

I crossed the street toward my flat, hands in the pockets of my jacket, fingering the roll of industrial tape I usually kept there. The other two hadn’t liked my plan, but they hadn’t come up with anything better. Hopefully they’d be able to fulfill their parts in it.

I felt completely naked without my rifle. I had a couple of handguns stashed in my room, but a man wasn’t really dangerous unless he had a rifle. At least, he wasn’t consistently dangerous. Hitting something with a handgun always felt like an accident.

Megan did it, I thought. She not only hit, but hit a High Epic in the middle of a dodge, firing two guns at once, one from the hip.

She’d shown emotion during our fight with Fortuity. Passion, anger, annoyance. The second two toward me, but it had been something. And then, for a few moments after he fell . . . there had been a connection. Satisfaction, and appreciation of me that had come out when she’d spoken on my behalf to Prof.

Now that was gone. What did it mean?

I stopped at the edge of the playground. Was I really thinking about a girl now? I was only about five paces from where a group of Enforcement officers were hiding, probably with automatic or energy weapons trained on me.

Idiot, I thought, heading up the metal stairwell toward my apartment. They’d wait to see if I got out anything incriminating before grabbing me. Hopefully.

Climbing steps like that, with my back to the enemy, was excruciating. I did what I always did when I grew afraid. I thought of my father falling, bleeding beside that pillar in the broken bank lobby while I hid. I hadn’t helped.

I would never be that coward again.

I reached the door to my apartment, then fiddled with the keys. I heard a distant scrape but pretended not to notice. That would be the sniper on top of the playground equipment nearby, repositioning to aim at me. Yes, from this angle I saw for certain. That playground piece was just tall enough that the sniper would be able to shoot through the door into my apartment.

I stepped inside my single room. No hallways or anything else, just a hole cut into the steel, like most dwellings in the understreets. It might not have had a bathroom or running water, but I was still living quite well, by understreets standards. A whole room for a single person?

I kept it messy. Some old, disposable noodle bowls sat in a pile beside the door, smelling of spice. Clothing was strewn across the floor. I had a bucket of two-day-old water sitting on the table, and dirty, beat-up silverware sat in a pile beside it.

I didn’t use those to eat. They were for show. So was the clothing; I didn’t wear any of it. My actual clothing—four sturdy outfits, always clean and washed—was folded in the trunk beside my mattress on the floor. I kept my room messy, intentionally. It actually itched at me, as I liked things neat.

I’d found that sloppiness put people off guard. If my landlady came snooping up here, she’d find what she expected. A teenager just into his majority blowing his earnings on an easy life for a year before responsibility hit him. She wouldn’t poke or prod for secret compartments.

I hurried to the trunk. I unlocked it and pulled out my backpack—already packed with a change of clothing, spare shoes, some dry rations, and two liters of water. There was a handgun in a pouch on one side, and the smoke grenade was in a pouch on the other side.

I walked to my mattress and unzipped the case. Inside was my life. Dozens of folders, filled with clippings from newspapers or scraps of information. Eight notebooks filled with my thoughts and findings. A larger notebook with my indexes.

Maybe I should have brought all of this with me when going to watch the Fortuity hit. After all, I’d hoped to leave with the Reckoners. I’d debated it but had eventually decided that it wouldn’t be reasonable. There was so much of it, for one thing. I could lug it all if I needed to, but it slowed me down.

And it was just too precious. This research was the most valuable thing in my life. Collecting some of it had nearly gotten me killed—spying on Epics, asking questions better left unasked, making payments to shady informants. I was proud of it, not to mention frightened about what might happen to it. I’d thought it safer here.

Boots shook the metal landing of the stairwell outside. I looked over my shoulder and saw one of the most feared sights in the understreets: fully geared Enforcement officers. They stood on the landing, automatic rifles in their hands, sleek black helmets on their heads, military-grade armor on their chests, knees, arms. There were three of them.

Their helmets had black visors that came down over their eyes, leaving their mouths and chins exposed. The eye shields gave them night vision and glowed faintly green, with a strange smoky pattern that swirled and undulated across the front. It was transfixing, which was said to be the point.

I didn’t need to act to make my eyes go wide, my muscles taut.

“Hands on your head,” the lead officer said, rifle up at his shoulder and the barrel trained on me. “Down on your knees, subject.”

That was what they called people, subject. Steelheart didn’t bother with any kind of silly pretense that his empire was a republic or a representative government. He didn’t call people citizens or comrades. They were subjects of his empire. That was that.

I quickly raised my hands. “I didn’t do anything!” I whined. “I was just there to watch!”

“HANDS UP, KNEES DOWN!” the officer yelled.

I complied.

They entered the room, leaving the doorway conspicuously open so that their sniper had a view through the door. From what I’d read, these three would be part of a five-person squad known as a Core. Three regular troops, one specialist—in this case a sniper—and one minor Epic. Steelheart had about fifty Cores like this.

Almost all of Enforcement was made of special-operations teams. If there was any large-scale fighting to be done, something very dangerous, Steelheart, Nightwielder, Firefight, or maybe Conflux—who was head of Enforcement—would deal with it personally. Enforcement was used for the smaller problems in the city, the ones Steelheart didn’t want to bother with himself. In a way he didn’t need Enforcement. They were like a homicidal dictator’s version of valet parking attendants.

One of the three soldiers kept an eye on me while the other two rifled through the contents of my mattress. Is she in here? I wondered. Invisible somewhere? My instincts, and my memory of researching her, told me she’d be near.

I just had to hope she was in the room. I couldn’t move until Cody and Megan fulfilled their part of my plan, though, so I waited, tense, for them to do so.

The two soldiers pulled notebooks and folders out from between the two pieces of foam that made up my mattress. One flipped through the notes. “This is information on Epics, sir,” he said.

“I thought I’d be able to see Fortuity fight another Epic,” I said, staring at the floor. “When I found out something terrible was happening, I tried to get away. I was only there to see what would happen, you know?”

The officer began looking through the notebooks. The soldier watching me seemed uncomfortable about something. He kept glancing at me, then at the others.

I felt my heart thumping, waiting. Megan and Cody would attack soon. I had to be ready.

“You are in serious trouble, subject,” the officer said, tossing one of my notebooks to the floor. “An Epic, and an important one, is dead.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with it!” I said. “I swear. I—”

“Bah.” The lead officer pointed toward one of the other soldiers. “Gather this up.”

“Sir,” said the soldier watching me. “He’s probably telling the truth.”

I hesitated. That voice . . .

“Roy?” I said, shocked. He’d hit majority the year before me . . . and had joined Enforcement after that.

The officer glanced back at me. “You know this subject?”

“Yes,” Roy said, sounding reluctant. He was a tall redhead. I’d always liked him. He’d been an adjunct at the Factory, which was a position Martha gave to senior boys—they were meant to stop the young or weaker workers from being picked on. He’d done his job well.

“You didn’t say anything?” the lead officer said, his voice hard.

“I . . . sir, I’m sorry. I should have. He’s always had a fascination with Epics. I’ve seen him cross half the city on foot and wait in the rain just because he heard a new Epic might be passing through town. If he heard something about two of them fighting, he’d have gone to watch, whether it was a good idea or not.”

“Sounds exactly like the kind of person who should be off the streets,” the officer said. “Gather this. Son, you’re going to come tell us exactly what you saw. If you do a good job, perhaps you might even live through the night. It—”

A gunshot sounded outside. The officer’s face blossomed red, the front of his helmet exploding as a bullet hit him.

I rolled toward my backpack. Cody and Megan had done their job, quietly taking down the sniper and getting into position to support me.

I ripped open the Velcro on the side of my pack and pulled out my handgun, then fired rapidly at Roy’s thighs. The bullets hit an open spot in his advanced plastic armor, dropping him, though I almost missed. Sparking pistols.

The other soldier fell to a well-placed shot from Cody, who would be on that playground equipment outside. I didn’t stop to make sure the third soldier was dead—Refractionary might be in the room, armed and ready to shoot. I pulled out the smoke grenade and removed the pin.

I dropped the grenade. A burst of grey smoke jetted from the canister, filling the room. I held my breath, handgun up. Refractionary’s powers would be negated when the smoke touched her. I waited for her to appear.

Nothing happened. She wasn’t in the room.

Smothering a curse, still holding my breath, I glanced at Roy. He was trying to move, holding his leg and trying to point his rifle toward me. I leaped through the smoke and kicked the rifle aside. Then I pulled his sidearm out of its holster and tossed it. Both guns would be useless to me; they’d be keyed to his gloves.

Roy’s hand was in his pocket. I put my gun to his temple and yanked his hand out. He’d been trying to dial his mobile. I cocked the gun, and he dropped the mobile.

“It’s too late anyway, David,” Roy spat, then started coughing at the smoke. “Conflux will know the moment we go offline. Other Cores are on their way here. They’ll send spying eyes down to watch. Those are probably already here.”

Breath still held, I checked the pockets on his cargo pants. There were no other weapons.

“You’re being a fool, David,” Roy said, coughing. I ignored him and scanned the room. I had to start breathing, and the smoke was getting overpowering.

Where was Refractionary? On the landing, maybe. I kicked the smoke grenade out, hoping she was there.

Nothing. Either I had her weakness wrong, or she’d decided not to join her team in coming to get me.

What if she was sneaking up on Megan and Cody? They’d never see her coming.

I glanced down. Roy’s mobile.

Worth a try.

I snatched the phone and opened the address book. Refractionary was listed under her Epic name. Most Epics preferred to use them.

I dialed.

Almost immediately, a gunshot sounded from the playground outside.

I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. I ducked outside, staying low, and kicked the smoke grenade off the landing. I started down the stairwell and took a deep breath.

Then, eyes watering, I scanned the playground. Cody knelt on top of the playground equipment, rifle out. At the base of the tower, Megan stood with her gun out, a body in black and yellow at her feet. Refractionary.

Megan fired again into the body, just to be certain, but the woman was obviously dead.

Another Epic eliminated.

|   Castellano